MPs call for more transparency over UK’s use of drones

Commons defence committee also points to ‘apparently inconsistent answers by ministers’ over joint operations with US

Ministers should be more open about the use of drones, but the unmanned aerial weapons are here to stay and should be welcomed, the Commons defence committee says in a report released on Tuesday.

The report says that public disquiet about the controversial weapons – or “remotely piloted air systems” as the RAF prefers to call them – has been fed in part by “misunderstandings and misinformation”.

The pilots of unmanned aircraft are not the video gaming “warrior geeks” they are often portrayed as being, and according to the Ministry of Defence, British “remotely piloted combat missions will always involve human operators and pilots”, the report says.

The MoD says it is aware of only one incident in which a strike by an armed UK Reaper unmanned aircraft killed civilians. That was on 25 March 2011, when four Afghan civilians were killed.

However, a freedom of information request last month by the campaign group Drone Wars UK revealed that British pilots launched at least 39 missile strikes against suspected Taliban insurgents from American drones in Afghanistan.

Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, subsequently told MPs that the UK and the US operated a “combined fleet” of Reapers, piloted by personnel from either country.

In a separate answer, the junior defence minister, Anna Soubry, told MPs that apart from launching operations, UK Reapers had always been operated by UK pilots.

The defence committee’s report points to the “apparently inconsistent answers by ministers”. They must make it clear whether or not British Reapers have ever been operated by Americans outside launch and recovery operations, the committee says.

“If public confidence is to be built around the use of remotely piloted air systems it is important that it is clear that UK aircraft have only been utilised within Afghanistan and always in accordance with UK rules of engagement,” say the MPs.

The UN and campaign groups have strongly attacked “targeted killings” by unmanned aircraft. The defence committee says it acknowledges ” a growing concern in relation to the sharing of intelligence with allies and the uses to which such data may contribute” – a reference to the UK passing information about individuals to the US.

“We do believe that there should be greater transparency in relation to safeguards and limitations the UK government has in place for the sharing of intelligence,” says the defence committee making it plain that Britain should not get embroiled in US operations.

“It is of vital importance that a clear distinction be drawn between the actions of UK armed forces operating remotely piloted air systems in Afghanistan and those of other states elsewhere,” the report says. Though the MPs say on the basis of the evidence they received, they are satisfied UK remotely piloted air system operations “comply fully with international law”, they make it clear they cannot give the same assurances about US operations.

Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK attacked the report for not demanding that all casualties of RAF unmanned vehicle strikes should …read more    

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